Having a baby is hard on a relationship.But you can keep your partnership steady after having a baby! It seems that no matter how much they prepare, couples are often stunned by the absolute chaos that quickly descends upon them. While it’s hard to prepare for sleeplessness and ear-piercing cries, couples that anticipate some degree of turmoil seem to cope better, with less bitterness and greater satisfaction, than those who feel blindsided.
Alongside the excitement, constant worries and bickering will test your relationship like never before. Lack of sleep and short tempers can lead to snapping, blaming, and all kinds of resentments. A whopping 67 percent of new parents experience conflict, disappointment, and hurt feelings after having a baby. Still, relationships can endure high levels of stress when they are fortified by mutual support and attention.
Understanding and talking about the fact that this life transition will substantially impact your relationship are the first steps toward protecting it. In What About Us?: A New Parents Guide to Safeguard Your Over-Anxious, Over-Extended, Sleep-Deprived Relationship, Karen Kleiman, MSW, and artist Molly McIntyre address the very real ways a new baby can test and strain a relationship.
So many couples ask, “What about us?” and end up answering, “We have to wait.” But there is another way! Your relationship doesn’t need to be on the backburner, and together you can become a team who parents in tandem and grows closer in the process. In a time of raging hormones and addled nerves, here are four keys to keep your partnership steady after having a baby:
- Lean Into the Relationship
- Lean Away from the Chaos
- Stay Connected to Your Partner
- Pay Attention to the Needs of Your Partner
Lean Into the Relationship to Keep Your Partnership Steady After Having a Baby
Rebuild Your Circle of Affection
When couples first navigate intimacy in a committed relationship, they generate something called a “circle of affection.” Imagine a circle that encompasses the two partners and all their individualities, predilections, desires, passions, and values. It’s a circle that envelops the two of you and everything you enjoy and hope for. It’s just “you and me.”
This circle connects you to each other with the promise of shared dreams and the challenge of potential struggles. The circle of affection is what keeps you tuned into each other, creating a protective bubble—despite the pull from external life forces, such as work, financial stress, loss, or other dysfunctional relationships, just to name a few. This is where it has always been “all about us.”
Something or someone will always insist you pay attention and nudge or even annihilate your circle of affection. You will be tempted to abandon the circle because, well, the scream for your company penetrates that sacred space. Keep in mind that the circle can sustain itself with the presence of pure intentions and loyalty to the relationship.
This is a work in progress. As you travel through this incredible journey of good days and bad days, be clear about this—the strength and well-being of your secure connection within this circle can make the difference between couples who thrive and couples who struggle. Take good care of each other.
Focus on the Good
Tap into those qualities that attracted you to each other in the first place and practice skills to help insulate you from the endless distractions of parenthood. When you hear yourself asking, “What about us?”, that is the time to regroup and refocus on that special circle of just the two of you.
With grit and fortitude, your relationship begins to reshape itself and, before you know it, the two of you have transformed into a family that works pretty darned well. Peace and harmony can be restored even though life is different.
Lean Away from the Chaos to Keep Your Partnership Steady After Having a Baby
Watch Out for Those Hormones
The first few days and weeks home with a new baby can be exhilarating, exhausting, and besieged by unknowns. We know that changes in mood can be linked to specific hormonal shifts in women, such as drops in estrogen and progesterone levels, which can lead to a roller coaster of emotions. While hormonal changes in male partners have been less studied, research shows that higher testosterone levels might protect against paternal depression, though it may increase relationship distress and dissatisfaction.
Whether it is hormonal or situational, both partners can initially feel on the verge of crying or lashing out. This is a good time to remind yourself that, whether or not this is your first child, you are both adjusting and you are both on the same team. Sometimes, the best you can do is let your partner know that their feelings are okay. Remember that being kind to each other, especially when it feels hard to do so, is more important than you might realize.
Life Won’t Slow Down, so Make Time Now
Sometimes the combination of unprecedented anxiety, responsibility of a newborn, and overwhelming expectations leads to a disruption of everything you love about your relationship. As you both are thrust into the demands of caring for a newborn, you find limited time to attend to your relationship. Menial tasks replace romantic gestures, and discussions about bodily functions are commonplace.
The urgency of caring for an infant transcends anything and everything. Often, the relationship gets put on the back burner. You must attend to this primary relationship, your partnership, and the connection that drives it, especially during times of high stress. As tempting as it may be to set it aside while you scramble to take care of everything else, holding your relationship in the forefront will make everything else feel more doable.
Stay Connected to Your Partner to Keep Your Partnership Steady After Having a Baby
Physical AND Emotional Intimacy
Relationships thrive when intimacy is strong. When sexual intimacy is compromised or postponed, it becomes even more important to nurture other means of maintaining closeness. Finding ways to connect physically and emotionally can feel rewarding and satisfying for couples who are overloaded and exhausted. However, loving gestures can be misconstrued. Partners might worry about the (intentional or unintentional) initiation of sex and, therefore, retreat. These worries should be clearly communicated to reduce the likelihood of misinterpretation or hurt feelings.
When possible, take steps to remain physically close by sitting together, snuggling, hugging, kissing, laughing, and touching, so long as both of you remain clear about the intentions and expectations involved. Spend time alone without your baby, if possible, even if you can only grab a moment here and there. Heartfelt compliments to your partner can remind you of the foundation of your initial attraction. Remember who you both are and who you were before the baby.
Remembering Your Life Before Baby
Parents often express guilt over missing the parts of their lives that have disappeared since having children. While deep in the new-baby trenches, you might be surprised to find an ache in your heart for your partner, even though they are right there with you. While your alone time as a couple feels out of reach, mundane obligations can take the place of romantic date nights. The loss of the private, personal connection between the two of you can make you feel unexpectedly sad. Or you might long for your before-baby experiences, such as impulsive outings, dinner for two, or cuddling on the couch in front of the TV.
Indeed, it is incredibly hard to give proper attention to a relationship when there is a new baby in the picture. Nevertheless, when the desire to keep the partnership steady gains traction, the relationship is fortified. Research literature is very clear that couples who take care of their relationship by taking care of each other will experience more joy and less conflict for a longer period of time.
Pay Attention to the Needs of Your Partner
A good place to start is to muster your energy and have a heart-to-heart about what you need from each other. When couples are overwhelmed, emotions run wild and communication can break down. Each of you can quickly feel dismissed and misunderstood, disappointed that the other does not just know what is needed. Consequently, you may want to wait and see if your partner will figure out what you need and actually help.
But this approach can leave you feeling abandoned and alone. One tactic, which might sound counterintuitive at first, to help your partner meet your needs is for you to give first. When you start by acknowledging the emotional state of your partner, you actually help them help you by nudging them closer to you. This way, they feel more understood and are less likely to criticize or retreat. Also, when you ask for help from your partner, be specific and identify any obstacles that may get in the way.
In Conclusion: The Magic of Reconnecting
Rediscovering yourself as a couple can ground you both and revive feelings that have been set aside to make room for the much-loved and ever-present craziness of having a baby. One of the best things you can do to make those fleeting feelings last longer is put words to them (e.g., “This feels so good”). Research shows that when individuals practice gratitude or positive affirmations, they experience a surge of certain neurotransmitters in the brain, like dopamine and norepinephrine, which can improve mood.
Paying attention to the moments that feel good will be self-rewarding and will help train your brain to focus on and experience more positivity. If something disappoints you, try re-framing your response to be more positive (e.g., “Well, that wasn’t what I expected, but it will be better next time”). This can be hard if you’re not used to thinking that way, but if you practice, it gets easier. Accepting your current state is a good place to start. Find something good, something meaningful, or something intentional about how you feel now. Practice mindful appreciation of even the smallest things that feel good to you. Negative feelings eventually pass. Try to find magic in the moment.
Brooke Jorden earned a BA in English and editing from Brigham Young University. The author of If It Fits, I Sits: The Ultimate Cat Quotebook, I Dig Bathtime, and the Lit for Little Hands series, Brooke is also the editorial director at Familius.